All posts tagged Birding

Ian Stewart

Sparrows are a mystery to most non-birders (and many birders too!) and it’s not hard to see why. The great majority of them are small, brown streaky birds that at this time of year are usually just glimpsed as they disappear into a tangle of undergrowth, so much so that sparrow sightings often get lumped into the catch-all category of ‘Little Brown Bird’ (hastily scribbled as ‘LBB’ in field notebooks from here to Alaska).

This is a great pity as sparrows are an under-appreciated group of birds in my opinion, and Delaware is awash with them during the winter because several species that breed as far away as northern Canada flood into our area and flock together with our resident sparrows. Tangled brush piles and weedy fields might not be attractive to an average human but they are very popular with sparrows who love to scuffle through them in search of seed as well as take cover in them if a hawk appears. On a good winter’s morning you might see more than half a dozen species of sparrow just by slowly walking along the edges of these brush piles and fields and waiting for them to appear.

A simple first step to identifying sparrows is to look at their breast as this lets you place them into one of two broad categories: those with streaked breasts and those with unstreaked breasts. The collage below is composed of sparrows banded during DNS’s Bird Conservation Program and up close you can see the differences between species in breast patterning, as well as the eyebrow stripes, moustaches and thin crown stripe found in many sparrows.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox, Savannah 2nd row. Lincoln’s, Field, American Tree (showing ‘stickpin’ in breast) 3rd row. Swamp, Chipping (winter), Slate-colored Junco 4th row. White-crowned, White-throated (adult), White-throated (immature)

The collage below shows the diversity of sizes, shapes and colors seen in sparrows’ beaks. For example, the beak of Song Sparrows is intermediate in length and depth while Fox Sparrows have a short but stout beak and both Lincoln’s and Swamp Sparrows have long, thin beaks. Some sparrows have all-brown beaks while others have beaks that are gray (White-throated), orange (Field), pink (Junco) or jet black (Chipping Sparrow during the breeding season). The American Tree Sparrow has the most distinctive beak of all, being dark brown above but yellow below. There is also quite a lot of variation in the angle of the forehead, the size of the eye, and the curvature of the upper beak.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox (with 2 ticks!) and Field 2nd row. Chipping (summer), Chipping (winter), Savannah 3rd row. Lincoln’s, Swamp, American Tree 4th row. White-throated, Slate-colored Junco, White-crowned (immature).

Hopefully these photographs have convinced you that sparrows are more different and beautiful than you had thought. My advice is to slowly explore the undergrowth on a crisp, still winter’s morning and try to get a good look at every species you see. Rest assured, you will be rewarded!


By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

We were walking through the dense Terra Firme Jungle south of the Napo River in eastern Ecuador.  My group stopped in front of me to photograph a stunning red flower.  I wasn’t paying too much attention to them, but to my surprise, in an instant they all started screaming!  In a flash, some kind of furry animal was headed straight towards me, and it was the size of a small dog.  Not only was my group screaming, but I screamed as well! The animal did not see me, and in its fright flight, skidded and slammed right into my leg.  By the dusky smell it gave off, we knew we had scared a White-lipped Peccary just off the trail.

This is just one of hundreds of memories that come forth when recalling the amazing DNS trip to Ecuador in November of 2014. Joined by our tour leader Forrest Rowland, we toured the country on a birding trip of a lifetime.  You might remember Forrest as the first Hawk Watcher at the Ashland Hawk Watch in 2007.  He spent the next two seasons as the Hawk Watcher at the Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch.  Now, Forrest is the manager for birding tours in the western hemisphere for Rockjumper Tours, and is an Ecuadorian bird expert.

Birding from the canopy tower in a huge Kapok tree at the Sacha Lodge in Amazonian Ecuador.

Birding from the canopy tower in a huge Kapok tree at the Sacha Lodge in Amazonian Ecuador.

On our trip, we ventured up and down the eastern and western slopes of the Andes, and down into the Amazonian lowlands for 19 days.  The focus was birding, and saw a huge selection of species in a wide spectrum of habitat types including temperate, subtropical, and tropical forest as well as high elevation Paramo grasslands up to almost 15,000 feet.  That elevation was not so kind to everyone in the group and resulted in a few people who contracted temporary altitude sickness.

There are more than 1,600 species of birds in Ecuador, and we experienced 771 of them.  This is a mind-numbing variety of bird species to see, and each day we traveled to new habitats where there was a whole new suite of sights, sounds, and of course birds.  This, along with sightings of 25 species of mammals which included 8 monkey species made for a very special trip.

Please enjoy this 5-minute video of our trip highlights.

Top ten bird species (of the 771 that we found) voted on by the group:

1. Crested Owl  2. Torrent Duck 3. Sword-billed Hummingbird 4. Great Potoo 5. Banded Antbird 6. Andean Condor 7.Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe 8. Hoatzin 9. Wire-crested Thorntail (hummingbird) 10. Golden-headed Quetzal.

Primates and other mammals seen by the group:

White-tailed (paramo) Deer, White-lipped Peccary, Tayra, Andean Long-tailed Weasel, Olinguito (described to science in 2013), Lesser Long-nosed Bat, White-lined Sac-winged Bat, Greater Bulldog Bat, Tent-making Bat, Fishing Bat, Nine-banded Armadillo, Forest Rabbit, Lemurine Night Monkey, Spix’s Night Monkey, Red Howler Monkey, Common Wooly Monkey, White-fronted Capuchin Monkey, Common Squirrel Monkey, Dusky Titi Monkey, Napo Tamarin, Capybara, Central American Agouti, Black Agouti, Western Dwarf Squirrel, Red-tailed Squirrel.

If you are interested in traveling with the Delaware Nature Society on future trips, we are offering a trip to Costa Rica, October 25 to November 5.  The $3,349 double-occupancy price is guaranteed through April 24th, so make your reservation with us soon!  Receive $50 off the trip by attending a Costa Rica Preview presentation at Ashland Nature Center on April 13, 6pm.  Light fare will be served as you learn more about this trip.  Call (302) 239-2334 ext. 134 to register for the preview night or inquire about the Costa Rica trip.


Birding the high elevation grassland habitat called Paramo.


By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

The birding has been truly fantastic over the last few weeks.  Migrant songbirds like warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers along with more hawks than we have ever seen at Ashland have caused lots of excitement, and sore necks from looking up all the time!  Yesterday I led a morning bird walk at Ashland Nature Center and there were so many birds we barely left the parking lot.  Included in our total of 51 species for the morning, were 12 species of warbler, 3 species of vireo, 6 species of thrush, and others like Red-breasted Nuthatch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  If you want to see the full list from yesterday, it can be found at ebird.

Hank Davis got good photos of some of the birds we saw at Ashland yesterday morning. This was a nice, bright Blackburnian Warbler.

At the Ashland Hawk Watch, which is open daily through the end of November, we have had some really exciting days recently.  On September 11th, 2,665 raptors flew over.  On the 16th, 6,305 raptors were tallied, which was our single biggest day at the Hawk Watch ever.  On the 19th, 1,195 raptors were counted.  Most of these hawks are Broad-winged Hawks, which migrate through in huge numbers in September, and it is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles to catch in Delaware.  This is a particularly good year for them here.  Full raptor numbers for Ashland Hawk Watch can be found the Hawkcount site.  Come visit the Hawk Watch soon, and help us scan the skies for hawks!

Bay-breasted Warbler is tough to find and yesterday we found two lurking around the Ashland parking lot. Photo by Hank Davis.

There are a lot of free guided bird walk opportunities with the Delaware Nature Society to catch the phenomenon of migration this fall.  Other than the daily Ashland Hawk Watch, here is a list of what you can do…for free…no registration required!  Of course, if you attend, your membership in the Delaware Nature Society is appreciated.  Directions to most of  these sites can be found at  Middle Run Natural Area can be found on Possum Hollow Road just before the Tri-state Bird Rescue.

Sundays: Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Kennett Square, PA.  8am.  Year-round.

Mondays: Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Kennett Square, PA.  8am.  Year-round.

Tuesdays: Middle Run Natural Area, Newark, DE.  8am.  September and October.

Thursdays: Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, Milford, DE.  8am.  Through December 20.

Thursdays: Ashland Nature Center, Hockessin, DE.  8am.  September and October.

Saturdays: Burrows Run Preserve, Hockessin, DE.  8am.  September.


Black-throated Green Warbler was one of the more common of the 12 warbler species we saw yesterday morning. Photo by Hank Davis.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Programs Team Leader

Late March in Nebraska is very much like it is here in Delaware…warm, cold, warm, cold, windy, windy, rain, snow.  That is how our trip went last week in the Cornhusker State.  We experienced a wild variety of weather, including temperatures in the 70’s when we arrived.  That didn’t last.  By the end of the week it was a high of 34 degrees and snow all day.

The wildlife isn’t as variable as the weather luckily, and that was the reason 8 of us from the Delaware Nature Society made our way to the center of the continent last week.  The main reason, and original draw for the trip is still the Sandhill Crane migration and staging of half-a-million birds on the Platte River.  This year, as in the last 100,000 years, the Cranes descended on this shallow prairie river, and fed in it’s floodplain of corn fields.  They captivated us, and brought us into their world of the wild for a few days, while they paused, rested, and fattened on their journey to the northernmost reaches of North America and even Siberia.

Sandhill Cranes descend on the Platte River for the night after fattening in corn fields during the day.

Away from the Platte River and the Cranes, corn, and for the most part, other people, is my favorite part of Nebraska…the Sandhills region.  It is mostly an area that is unknown to Americans, but it should be.  It is America’s Sahara and our last great, intact and functioning prairie ecosystem.  When the wind blows here, it does not rustle corn stalks.  Here you hear the swoosh of prairie grasses and the dried stalks of wildflowers.  Rolling sand dunes, some as high as 400 feet overlook abundant wetlands at their bases, springing up from the Ogallala Aquifer lying just under the sandy soil.  20,000 square miles of sand dunes, prairie grass, wetlands and lakes, few people, and abundant wildlife define the Sandhills region, Nebraska’s greatest natural treasure.

The Nebraska Sandhills are a 20,000 square-mile area of prairie-covered sand dunes with abundant wetlands. Few people and lots of wildlife characterize this special region...America's Sahara, and one of our last remaining intact prairie ecosystems.

We stage our Sandhills experience at Calamus Outfitters on the Switzer Family Ranch.  Here we watched Greater Prairie-chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse perform their spring mating dances.  An open-air jeep safari tour deep into the beautiful Sandhills landscape was cold, but exhilarating and educational at the same time.  The nearby Calamus Reservoir and surrounding wetlands provided huge numbers of ducks, Bald Eagle, American White Pelican, gulls, and many other species to appreciate and watch.  Join us if you can on a future trip, and enjoy the short video of highlights from our trip to Nebraska, March 2011.

Here is the list of birds we saw on the trip this year:

Snow Goose
Ross’s Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Greater Prairie-Chicken
Wild Turkey
Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Franklin’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Northern Shrike
American Crow
Horned Lark
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Oops!  I forgot to add Wilson’s Snipe, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Blue Jay.  Also, the mammals we saw were: White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Coyote, Mink, Groundhog, Eastern Fox Squirrel, Muskrat, and Eastern Cottontail.  For the first time ever on this trip, we saw a lizard…the Northern Prairie Lizard.